Sixty-two year old Alabama soul singer and visual artist Lonnie Holley, the seventh son of 27 children, has a rough, unvarnished sound that recalls veteran performers like Bobby Womack and the late Ted Hawkins, as well as young upstarts like former busker Willis Earl Beal. There's a good deal of grit and gospel to his style, but there's also a lot of negative space and industrial ambiance, as if he recorded his long-gestating debut in an abandoned steelworks with sky-scraping ceilings.
His improvisational approach makes an immediate impression, since a nasal tone—what choir teachers call "a head voice"—combines with a pronounced vibrato. His tone manages to be declamatory and muffled at the same time, since he forces his lyrics out with passion and energy, and yet it's still hard to make them out, such that you notice the emotion before the meaning. As he states in the liner notes, "Look at Michael Jackson, it was ENERGY. ENERGY conquers!!"
It's a visceral skill, which isn't to suggest that he lacks talent; but that he'll do whatever it takes to put his feelings across (he gets downright phlegmatic on "Earthly Things"). There's no technical finesse, but the sincerity is never in doubt.
In a world of Auto-Tune, Lonnie Holley stands as a living protest, and Just Before Music has a timeless feel. If I didn't know he worked on it between 2010-2011, most any year would make sense. Just as Beal's Acousmatic Sorcery seemed to emerge from out of a cultural vacuum, Holley transcends trends, but he's very much part of the present, and is busy preparing a new release—with assistance from Cole Alexander (Black Lips) and Bradford Cox (Deerhunter).
Granted, when he sings about "digital images" in "The End of the Film Era" over the whir of a projector, I snapped right back to now. The same goes for the references to America's Top Model and American Idol in "Fifth Child Burning," but those are just blips along the way. This guy is his own man, living in his own world.
Live with Alexander and Cox as Ghetto Cross
Just Before Music is out now (original release date: 11/6/12). Also recommended on Dust-to Digital: Pictures of Sound - One Thousand Years of Educed Audio: 980-1980 and the double-LP set Drop on Down in Florida - Field Recordings of African American Traditional Music 1977–1980. I haven't had a chance to listen to Pictures yet, but Drop on Down—especially "Careless Love"—is pretty great.